TEFL: teaching English as a foreign language

What’s the difference between called and cold?

That may sound like a silly question, but it is an issue for many people learning English, because the two words sound alike. You show them a pen and say “What is this called?”, but all they hear, or think they hear, is the word “cold”.

Why is sword pronounced the same as sawed, why does short sound like caught and should they say “in bed” or “on the bed”?

Digital StillCamera
That’s a good question. Give me a nanosecond here…

I spent many years in the UK as a journalist and general writer, before the economic downturn hit the publishing industry hard and drastically reduced the work available. So I retrained as a teacher of English as a foreign language – and found it opened doors to a whole new career. But there are different ways of doing it, and the obvious ones are not always the best.

You may have seen the initials TEFL – they stand for teaching English as a foreign language. There’s also TESOL (teaching English as a second language), ESP (English for specific purposes) and a host of others denoting various fine-tunings of that basic idea.

The general principle is that English is widely used as a common language and people all over the world want to learn it. They may need it for professional advancement (it’s the standard language in many companies with bases in several countries), or because they want to go and live in an English-speaking country, or simply to make things easier when they go to Florida on holiday. Whatever the reason, there is a demand for it (and let’s cash in before China takes over the world and we all have to learn Mandarin).

And the answer is…?

Look up TEFL online and you will find plenty of people willing to train you – but beware, because some of these qualifications hold less weight than others. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first the quick and easy part.

I did a 100-hour online course with a company called i-to-i, but was actually out in South America teaching before I finished it. In Venezuela you see a job with an agency advertised in the paper, go along for an interview and they check out the way you look and dress, listen to your voice and give you a basic grammar test along the lines of ‘Which of these two sentences is wrong? I am going to the library this morning / I will going to the library this morning.’ Then they give you a course book and the name of a student and off you go.

It’s a far cry from nanny-state UK, where you need a certificate of competence to scratch your own ear and a CRB check before you can tell other people how to scratch theirs.

As I built up my list of agencies and private students in those first months, nobody ever asked me about qualifications. I finished the online TEFL course in little Caracas internet cafes between classes and duly received my certificate. In the meantime I was helping students, and that is a very good feeling.

In many ways it’s a doddle: often someone else has done the hard work of teaching them the basics and the TEFL teacher’s job is mainly about unlocking their confidence. One of my early students was working for the national petroleum company, PDVSA, and preparing to take the IELTS test (international English language testing system), attending English classes all day but needing some extra conversation practice.

Beautiful young woman working on a laptop indoors
You want me to talk for two minutes about backache?

As part of the test she would be required to talk for two minutes about something like her home town, favourite restaurant etc. I impressed upon her that in our classes she shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes, because it was only me, and I would let her flow as much as possible and correct her either immediately, if appropriate, or later, having noted down the points that needed addressing.

After a month, Odalis could have talked for an hour about anything from astrophysics to football. She told her classmates about me and I ended up with eight of them, giving one-to-one classes in hotel rooms at 7.30 in the morning or after college finished from 4pm onwards, with a few crammed in at lunchtimes at outdoor cafes. A more usual pattern is teaching adults in their offices for an hour when they can swing it with the boss, and so it was that I had students in the Ministry of Finance and a smart office block occupied by an international pharmaceuticals company with headquarters in Germany, a presence in the US and another in a fashionable part of Caracas. The common language was English.

See? I can do your silly alphabet where the letters are not pronounced as they are called

The money is very poor, but it’s a gratifying experience.

Now, the other way of doing it is working for a language school in the UK or elsewhere, teaching classes of anything from four or five to dozens of students. To do this, your online certificate is worthless. They won’t consider employing you unless you hold either the CELTA or Trinity qualification, and these cost real money and take real time. Whereas my online 100-hour thing was about £250 and could be fitted in as and when I wanted, CELTA involves an intensive course. I signed up for a one-month full-time version (you can do these in lots of places around the world) at a cost of £1,000.

This is entirely different. Whereas with the online course – and indeed my actual teaching – the basic structures of the English language are important but not necessarily part of what you do every day, with CELTA you’re involved in the science of English, breaking it down and explaining it to students, some of whom have learning styles that rely on this nuts-and-bolts approach. In addition to what the past perfect continuous is used for( we use it to talk about actions or situations which had continued up to the past moment we are thinking about, or shortly before it – Swan, Practical English Usage) – how is it formed? (Answer: had been + -ing). It’s the kind of approach that might suit proof-readers better than writers, although the former, an often pedantic breed, could have trouble accepting that it’s not all black and white, and that other people have slightly different but equally valid opinions

And then there’s the issue of teaching a class rather than just one person. Stage fright enters the equation: it all looks great as you play it in your head in advance, but when you’re on, when you’re under the spotlight, it can all fly out of the window. And the instructors want to see a lesson plan, breaking the 40-minute session down into chunks: I’m going to spend five minutes doing this warm-up exercise, this is the vocabulary I’m going to teach them before I start, these are the pictures I’m going to show them, I’m going to crack this particular joke at exactly 10:45… blah blah blah. Spontaneity is not only not required, it’s almost frowned upon. Once you’ve passed the course and you’re an experienced teacher, maybe you can do things off the cuff. Until then you’re wearing L plates and you will stay in the left hand lane in second gear.

This undoubtedly suits some people and I’m not necessarily knocking it, but for the more intuitive among us it can be very frustrating. There was a group of army officers on the course I took and it was right up their street (most of them). They’re used to that kind of thing. To me it felt like you were not so much learning to teach English as a foreign language as learning how to follow procedures and pass an exam.

teacher 2
Nervous? Me? All I’m doing is teaching

However you choose to do it, though, TEFL can be a very rewarding thing to do. You can travel the world. You’ll never get rich, but that’s another matter. Just make sure you get the qualification you need, that’s all. You can do CELTA online, but there will be some face-to-face teaching practice and your location may be unhelpful. But if you want to do something worthwhile, something that can change your way of life, sometimes you have to go that extra mile.

183 thoughts on “TEFL: teaching English as a foreign language

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